Todd Moss is senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs.
Robert Mugabe’s rule of Zimbabwe is effectively at an end. As of this morning, he and his family are confined to house arrest and the security forces are rounding up many of his closest allies. The army is now firmly in control of the airport and the television station. Although the Zimbabwean military denies it, this is a coup. Regardless of what happens in the next few days, the 93-year-old leader’s time is finally up. And the United States, which has been uncharacteristically passive on African affairs over the past year, has a vital role to play.
The events over the past 48 hours in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, are mostly an internecine fight between two factions in Mugabe’s inner circle. For years, first lady Grace Mugabe and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa battled to succeed Mugabe, the only leader the country has ever known since independence in 1980. Then, a week ago, the president finally sided with his wife and fired Mnangagwa, forcing him to flee the country. The military intervention, organized by Mnangagwa ally Gen. Constantino Chiwenga, is the blowback.
The roots of this crisis are in Mugabe’s increasingly dictatorial rule and the man-made destruction of a once-thriving economy. The only sustainable path to recovery is through parallel political reform and economic re-engagement with the outside world. This is where the United States becomes highly relevant.
Mnangagwa is now expected to return to the country. It would not be a surprise if he attempts to paint himself as the one who can rescue Zimbabwe. Neighbors such as South Africa and former colonial power Britain will find such a prospect alluring for the stake of “stability.”
The United States must be wiser. Mnangagwa allegedly oversaw a massacre of around 20,000 civilians in the 1980s (the killings came to be known as the Gukurahundi). His military muscle, Chiwenga, is the same man who refused to allow Mugabe to concede defeat after losing in 2008. Chiwenga then reportedly orchestrated a campaign of mass violence against the opposition, when at least 200 people were killed, hundreds more were disappeared, and tens of thousands were displaced. The two men also were implicated in the disappearance of billions of dollars in diamond revenue.
The United States knows that Zimbabwe cannot just trade one dictator for another. Handing over the future of Zimbabwe to Mnangagwa and Chiwenga is a recipe, not for stability but for prolonging the country’s pain. Instead of making a cynical short-term bet, the United States should push the region to insist on a broadly inclusive transitional authority and internationally supervised elections no later than next year. Anything short of that will fail to resolve the deep roots of the current mess.
A credible political transition back to multiparty democracy would also unlock international support for economic recovery. The United States has rightly objected to any new loans for Zimbabwe while Mugabe and his cronies are still in charge. But in a new dispensation, the United States could help to lead a package for rebuilding. This would help put Zimbabweans back to work and encourage the substantial and highly educated diaspora to return home.
The lessons from a coalition government from 2009 to 2013 bode well for Zimbabwe’s future. A few modest steps in those brief years allowed the economy to grow strongly and people began to invest again in the future. But Mugabe, Mnangagwa, Chiwenga and their cabal never ceded any real political power. That’s how they fixed the 2013 election and regained full control of the government, plunging the country back into crisis — and bringing us to today’s inflection point.
With Mugabe finally sidelined, with encouragement and support from the United States, a true coalition could be given a chance to succeed.